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We in the early music world are keen students of the music that we perform from – ie the dots (or smudges) on the page – and are well used to detecting the subtleties and nuances therein; we also know that although our (fairly) standardised modern notation is the result of many centuries of development, there is much contained in and signified by older notational systems that has been ironed out in the quest for clarity and uniformity.

But where did it all begin? There have been several excellent studies on the subject, most notably Willi Apel’s The Notation of Polyphonic Music and more recent volumes by Karin Paulsmeier and Anna Maria Busse Berger – but these, for all their many virtues, are aimed at the more academically minded reader.

What Thomas Forrest Kelly (professor of music at Harvard University) has set out to do in his new book is to give a non- specialist account of the beginnings of musical notation, up until the middle of the 15th century.

Kelly is adamant that this is ‘not a technical manual’: he moves seamlessly between general background matter and detailed musical discussion, never allowing his tone to go to either extreme. The result is a clear and entertaining guide, a good starting point for anyone wanting to find his or her way into what can be an intricate and arcane subject.

Adrien Horsewood Read the full review on Agora Classica


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Early Music Today, 2014 - ©Rhinegold Publishing